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Together and Apart, They Defined an Era

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actress Gloria Grahame and director Nicholas Ray absolutely define the 1950s. Their place in the Hollywood sun was brief, but their legacy and influence have eclipsed actors and directors who were far more popular during that decade.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive is saluting these talents with the retrospectives “Gloria Grahame: Bad & Beautiful,” which kicks off Saturday and continues through April 21, and “Nicholas Ray: In a Lonely Place,” which starts Sunday and also continues through April 21, both at the university’s James Bridges Theater.

“I have been waiting to do Gloria Grahame for a long time,” says Andrea Alsberg, head of programming for the UCLA archive. “She’s an overlooked superstar, and I think she really represented the ‘50s in a real interesting way. The people who she worked with are the top directors of the ‘50s. I think they saw in her something about her looks and manner that was a bit subversive that ran true with the time--the Cold War paranoia. She was a strong but vulnerable woman. The woman who could be dangerous but sad and smart.”

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With her distinctive pout and wispy voice, Grahame caught the attention of critics and audiences in 1947 in Edward Dmytryk’s groundbreaking murder mystery “Crossfire,” receiving a supporting actress Oscar nomination for two brief but memorable scenes as a bar girl with a heart of gold.

“Crossfire” transformed Grahame from a starlet into one of the most distinctive performers working in the film noir genre in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, playing everything from a murderous adulterer in “Sudden Fear” to a gangster’s moll whose face is horribly scarred by her boyfriend in “The Big Heat.”

Yet she was an atypical “bad girl,” with vulnerability beneath her cynicism--a pathos that made her sympathetic to audiences.

The Grahame festival features such films as Vincente Minnelli’s seminal tale of Hollywood “The Bad and the Beautiful,” for which she won best supporting actress of 1952 as a charming Southern belle married to a screenwriter; two Fritz Lang film noir classics, “The Big Heat” (1953) and “Human Desire” (1954); Elia Kazan’s “Man on a Tightrope” (1953), in which she plays the second wife of the owner of a Czech circus troupe; and Ray’s dark and dramatic “In a Lonely Place” (1950), in which Grahame plays a self-possessed young woman in a relationship with a volatile screenwriter (Humphrey Bogart). “In a Lonely Place” also parallels Grahame’s and Ray’s brief, turbulent marriage.

“One of the odd and interesting things about Gloria Grahame,” offers Oscar-winning writer-director Curtis Hanson, who is also chairman of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, “is [she was] not a huge star. [There was] not a tremendous library of titles or movies that she was in. But in this incredibly brief period, maybe in about five years, she worked with four masters, five if you count she worked with Fritz Lang twice--Lang, Minnelli, Nick Ray and Kazan. A couple of those movies for sure you would call masterpieces.”

Hanson believes Grahame’s career was short-lived for the same reason that directors liked her so much then and film aficionados appreciate her today. “She was different,” says Hanson. “She was very attractive, attractive enough to be a movie star, but yet not too attractive to be unreal. She was very real in these different parts. She was very versatile, and too hard to pin down. Career longevity comes out of being easy to identify--it is the opponent of versatility and creativity. People were so much more hidebound by typecasting in those days.”

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Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!”--one of Grahame’s few comedic turns, as Ado Annie--was one of her last major Hollywood films.

Alsberg feels her career waned in the latter part of the decade because “she really represented that Eisenhower era.... What do you do with her come the 1960s, when people are more interested in really escapist fare?”

Another reason she faded from the Hollywood scene was due to the scandal that erupted in 1960 when, at 36, she married Tony Ray, the 23-year-old son of her former husband, Nicholas Ray. She subsequently worked primarily in theater and appeared in 1979’s “Head Over Heels” and 1980’s “Melvin and Howard” before her death of cancer in 1981.

Like Grahame, Ray’s career was brief and remarkable. In just a few short years he directed several films that are considered classics--his richly textured, mesmerizing studies of the antihero and his remarkable visual style were embraced by the young French film critics of the Cahiers du Cinema like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, who later became directors themselves.

“Nick Ray was a real kind of maverick for the 1950s studio system,” says UCLA program associate Jesse Zigelstein. “He was sort of a very melodramatic personality, and he certainly had contempt for the studio bosses he worked for. He sort of conceived each project as a way to kind of wrestle his vision away from the moneymen in charge. That kind of battled sensibility can be extremely productive if given the right environment but, ultimately, it can really burn a lot of bridges. I think by the late ‘50s he had worn out his welcome in Hollywood. He struggled with independent projects throughout the ‘60s and the ‘70s; he was unable to get anything together.”

Among the Ray films included in the series is 1952’s exceptional film noir “On Dangerous Ground,” starring Robert Ryan as a detective who falls in love with a blind woman (Ida Lupino); 1955’s seminal youth movie “Rebel Without a Cause,” starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo as misunderstood teens; and 1954’s Freudian western “Johnny Guitar,” with Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge and Sterling Hayden.

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Ray’s last film was the 1963 epic “55 Days in Peking,’” which he made in Spain. He died of cancer at age 67 in 1979.

Hanson first came under the spell of Ray’s films as a youngster. One of the reasons he’s been so fascinated with Ray is because his films present a “world that is both frightening and attractive” in his films. “It is a world that is threatening and ugly, and yet at the same time there is an incredible and unexpected tenderness, which you can think of in many different scenes in his movies.”

In “Rebel Without a Cause,” which Hanson describes as the quintessential L.A. movie, “you have the kids living on the flatlands and you’ve got their school, and up in the hills you have the place they escape to. It is the place where there is emotion. Each location is picked so carefully, so iconographic. He studied architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright, and to what degree [that experience] entered into his use of space, I don’t know. But I do know he used space and the wide screen better than almost any director.”

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